Ascending to the top of one’s sport is no easy task. For a select few, natural talent provides a shortcut to the upper echelon, but it’s hard work that defines champions.
Invicta FC flyweight champion Barb Honchak is the embodiment of the sacrifice and dedication it takes to stand atop the world.
Most fighters have spent years in the wrestling room or competing in a traditional martial art before they ever consider stepping into a cage, but not all of them.
“I was never a super athletic person. I wasn’t the all-star in high school. I wasn’t anything like that,” admitted Honchak. “It was just hard work and grinding that has gotten me here. There’s no magic pill. There’s nothing special or unique about me that got me where I am. I want people to know that anybody can be here if they’re willing to make the sacrifices and willing to put the work in. You can be a champion in your sport.”
Honchak’s assessment of what it takes to reach the pinnacle of the sport may appear understated, but her path to the top of the flyweight ranks has been anything but typical. Most fighters do their best to avoid distractions leading up to their fights, yet Honchak’s resume includes fighting just one week prior to getting married.
“Not only was it the week before my wedding, but it was the first fight I ever did,” recalled the 35-year-old. “The only thing that was kind of rough was that I didn’t tell anybody that I was fighting. My husband knew—or fiancé at the time—but my mom didn’t know, nobody else knew.
“I was pretty unscathed for my wedding. [My opponent] poked me in the eye and my eyeball was still red during the wedding. When I was putting makeup on, my mom saw the spot in my eye and asked me what happened. At the time, I knew she would not take it well. So I told her I’d tell her after the wedding.”
The Illinois native’s desire to keep her newfound passion a secret might come as a surprise to those familiar with her recent successes under the Invicta banner. However, at the time, Honchak was uncertain about even stepping into the cage.
“When I took that fight, it was just more of, can I do this? Can I get in a fight? I never knew. It kind of scared me and I wanted to know if I could,” explained the fighter. “That was the first fight I had ever been in, period. I’ve never been in a street fight or anything like that. I wasn’t the type of kid that said ‘Hey, you and me at the playground after school.’ I never did anything like that unless you count slapping fights with my sister when I was little.”
Honchak’s first foray into the world of MMA was a success, and her initial taste left her hungry for more.
“As soon as the fight was over, I looked at my coach and said, ‘When’s the next one?’” remembered Honchak. “I knew I wanted to do it again, but I had ZERO expectations about making it a career at that point. It was just a hobby.”
Nearly a decade ago, MMA—especially the women’s side of the sport—lacked stability. At the time, Honchak was putting her bachelor’s degree in molecular biology and her master’s degrees in ecology and genetics to use at a regular job in St. Louis.
In her off time, Honchak trained under the tutelage of UFC veteran Steve Berger. It was under Berger’s wing that Honchak honed her skills on the grappling mat and picked up a moniker along the way.
“Steve’s a roofer and did construction type work throughout his life. He would bring guys in who were big and burly and have them roll with me,” said Honchak. “I would sub them and Steve would say, ‘She’s a little warrior.’ It was kind of a pet name at first, but it just stuck.”
The more time Honchak spent training and fighting, the more her hobby began spilling over into her day job. She faced a crossroads in her young career.
“I was working as a lab manager for Washington University in St. Louis. I had a great boss there. He would deal with me coming in with black eyes, cuts and staph infections, things like that. He was extremely accommodating,” stated Honchak.
“My husband was actually the one who really encouraged me to drop my job and try it full-time. I started so late in the game. I wasn’t getting any younger. It’s not like I had a ton of time to make a decision on it. He was constantly telling me, ‘If you don’t make a real run at it, you’re going to regret it.’ It started resonating in my own head that he’s right. It was terrifying to leave a solid position with a regular salary and health benefits, that security.”
Given the volatile nature of the women’s side of the sport at that point in time, Honchak’s decision to become a full-time fighter was even tougher.
“At the time, Invicta didn’t even exist. We watched promotion after promotion for women go under. It wasn’t a real smart move at the time to drop my good, secure job to try to fight,” said Honchak with a laugh. “I thought I’d give it a year and see where it went. That’s what we did and luckily Invicta came along.”
In the years before Honchak would join the Invicta roster, she faced a gauntlet of fights unlike what most fighters experience early in their career. Among her opponents were current or former UFC fighters Roxanne Modafferi, Nina Ansaroff, Felice Herrig and Angela Magana.
Yet, it wasn’t any of those notables that left the biggest impression on the fighter.
“I always go back to my fight against Cat Zingano. That fight will always be my most meaningful fight. It was a great fight. Cat’s a monster. She was by far the toughest fight,” declared Honchak of the current UFC bantamweight No. 1 contender.
“Up until Cat, it all felt like a sport. When I fought Cat, it felt like life and death. That is how she fights. That’s how she looks at it. She’s going to kill you if she can. Not only was that fight important in realizing what I had to do and changes I needed to make in my training, but she’s one of my best friends now. She’s become a critical person in my life. I learned so much about fighting, and the relationship I gained with her changed my fight career and me as a person completely.”
The bout with Zingano in early 2010 was the catalyst for numerous significant changes in Honchak’s life and career.
“When I started this, I didn’t know where exactly I was going with it. I was still working a full-time job at that point. I was still training like it was a hobby instead of a career. I don’t even think I’d put in a conditioning regime up until that point,” revealed the Little Warrior.
“It was after I fought Cat that I realized I either needed to drop to 115 [pounds] or start beefing up. Cat asked me to come out and be a training partner for her next fight. So I got to see how she did it. They introduced me to things like supplements and how taking your protein is important.
“It was an eye-opener. I started seeing it as a profession, not just a hobby. I saw how to train, how to do it right. Cat just fought; that’s all she did and that’s why she’s so good. It can be a career.”
The first major change for Honchak was to leave Missouri. Along with her husband, Timm, she headed to the Quad Cities and settled down to train at Miletich Fighting Systems (MFS) in Bettendorf, Iowa.
“My learning curve skyrocketed when I came over here,” declared Honchak. “There was a whole different knowledge base. Steve [Berger] had a lot to offer, but I got a whole different perspective on fighting once I came here.”
The new perspective was in large part due to the history surrounding the gym. In addition to the gym’s founder, Pat Miletich, MFS had produced a long list of top fighters through the years, including Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, Tim Sylvia, Jeremy Horn and Robbie Lawler. Honchak now had a championship tradition to follow.
“Miletich was huge back in the day, but then it sort of fell off the planet for a while,” said Honchak. “Right around the time that I moved here, there were two men [Michael Reddish and Eli Shetler] who bought the gym and committed to bringing Miletich back, having champions, having fighters in the UFC. That was their whole goal.
“One of those men [Reddish], in the last year, died of cancer. But I got that belt before he left. So, for me, there was a huge emotional component to it. He not only got to see me get the belt, but he saw me defend it, too. I felt like I helped them bring their goals to light. They had a world champion in the gym again. That meant a lot to me to give him that.”
Capturing Invicta gold is something that Honchak hopes is just the tip of the iceberg for MFS. The environment has helped her climb to the top of the flyweight division, but she believes others will follow suit.
“We have some serious up-and-comers in the gym. They just need some fights to get their face out there. It’s only a matter of time before the rest of the team is right behind me getting their titles and getting on the big shows,” she proclaimed. “Our coach, Junior [Hernandez], is so knowledgeable. We still have Pat in the gym helping people. Jens Pulver has recently come back and started coaching again. I’m watching our owners’ dream come to light and it’s pretty awesome. I think it’s just a matter of time before Miletich’s name is back in the mainstream of the MMA world and not as a commentator, but as a team.”
In addition to the knowledge base at her disposal, Honchak credits the gym for helping her find the competitive edge she once saw firsthand in Zingano.
“After I made the switch over to Pat’s gym, I got meaner! It made me meaner. Instead of worrying about hurting people, it was time to worry about finishing people. This whole team is meaner than my previous team.
“I’ve just gotten meaner and meaner—in the cage, not outside the cage,” she quipped with a laugh.
The mean streak that Honchak developed at MFS was instrumental in earning her a spot on the Invicta roster, as well as in her march to the top. After stopping Bethany Marshall at Invicta FC 2 with strikes and besting Aisling Daly at Invicta FC 3, Honchak was matched against Vanessa Porto for the promotion’s inaugural flyweight belt. Honchak cruised past the Brazilian to capture the title and then followed it up with a dominant win over Leslie Smith in December.
Riding an eight-fight winning streak and already established as the best in the world at 125 pounds, Honchak wants to keep it that way. In fact, she’s aiming to be an example for the other fighters in her weight class.
“I feel like I need to set the bar for ’25ers, and I want to set that bar pretty high,” she declared. “I have a bull’s eye on my back. I’m No. 1. I’ve got the title.
“I expect girls to come at me. That’s what I want. I want them to come up trying to take my head off. That’s their job. That’s what they should be doing. When girls are training, they’re looking at me as the person they need to be training for. If and when somebody takes that title from me, that girl’s going to be a monster.”
With so much on her shoulders, it would be easy for Honchak to crumble under the weight. Yet, the 35-year-old isn’t about to let that happen.
“Pressure is only what you let it be,” she explained. “The idea of pressure is something that people put on themselves. It’s something that people make in their own head; it’s not real.
“There are expectations of you, but they don’t really matter. The only expectations that matter are your own. To me, if you let everything else go, then the pressure’s not all that much. My team’s going to love me no matter what. My family’s going to love me no matter what. The people that matter to me are still going to be there when the smoke clears, regardless of the results. I really try to not let pressure be a factor. It’s not real unless I let it be real.
“I don’t feel a ton of pressure in any of my fights.”
The harness that Honchak has over pre-fight pressure is going to serve her well as she prepares for her second title defense on Saturday, Nov. 1, against Japan’s Takayo Hashi, live on UFC Fight Pass. For the first time in promotional history, Invicta will travel outside of its base in Kansas City and visit the River Center in Davenport, Iowa—just outside Honchak’s gym in Bettendorf.
“It’s pretty awesome!” an excited Honchak proclaimed. “I feel like the Quad Cities is such a historic, meaningful place [in MMA] being that Miletich started there and helped develop the sport. It’s historic since it’s the first place Invicta is going outside of Kansas City.
“I have a good feel for that venue and the area. I feel like my energy is already there. It’s a venue that our guys have fought in a ton of times. I’ve been there a lot. It’s going to be my crowd.”
Admittedly, Honchak wasn’t always excited by the idea of fighting in front of family and friends. It was just one of the hurdles she had to overcome in her fighting career.
“In my pro career, I’ve only fought in my hometown one other time,” explained the fighter. “As an amateur, I fought in Sullivan, Mo., which is an hour outside St. Louis, but it’s pretty rare that I’ve gotten to fight where I train and where I live.
“When I was younger in the sport, I wouldn’t tell anybody where I was fighting because I didn’t like the crowd. I didn’t want my mom to see me get punched in the face. So I used to not like to fight at home.
“The more I did it, the energy, the cheering, hearing familiar voices and it’s like, alright, I’ve got to go. Everybody I know is going to see, whether it’s on pay-per-view or some other way. Now I just take the positive part of it. It helps.”
With her dominant performances against Porto and Smith inside the Invicta cage, Honchak has already cemented herself as one of the best female fighters in the world. However, as she prepares to headline her second Invicta event in her hometown, she’s out to make a statement.
“I think it’s super exciting to be the main event on UFC Fight Pass. I want to put on an exciting fight so fans can see what we can do, what we are. I want to represent Invicta well and put on a show,” said the champion.
Honchak shouldn’t have much trouble achieving her goal of an exciting fight when she squares off with Hashi. The Japanese fighter has been in the cage with many of the sport’s elite, including the aforementioned Zingano and Modafferi, as well as Sarah Kaufman and Tara LaRosa. In 18 career fights, Zingano is one of only two women to stop Hashi.
“I did talk to Cat about Takayo and she told me she’s extremely resilient,” said Honchak. “[They had a] very tough fight. Cat hasn’t had too many fights go the distance, and they went into the third round. I’m expecting her to be tough.”
Given Honchak’s close relationship with Zingano and Zingano’s familiarity with Hashi in the cage, it would easy for Honchak to adjust her strategy for the fight, but she insists that’s not the case.
“I talked to Cat about what she thought of her, but I’m just going to go in there and fight another fight,” Honchak declared. “I don’t know that I really game-plan. I’m more worried about what I’m going to do to her, not what she’s going to do to me.
“I’ve heard champion and champion and champion say that they just train to make themselves better. I pretty much do the same thing. If you worry about them, then you worry about them. If you just worry about yourself, you execute what you want to do.”
Six of Honchak’s nine career wins have come on the scorecards, and 10 of Hashi’s 14 career wins have gone the distance. From a pure numbers standpoint, there’s a strong chance the pair will be battling for the full 25 minutes on Nov. 1, but that doesn’t mean Honchak is content with needing the judges.
“I’m always looking to finish,” she said with emphasis. “I don’t want it to go five rounds, but I’m fighting the best in the world, the top contenders. They want my title and they’re not going down easy. They’re not giving up, not giving in, not breaking.
“I expect that again with Takayo. I’m ready for five rounds.”
After close to a decade in the sport, Honchak has done much more than turn a hobby into a career. Although she’s already captured Invicta gold and is considered one of the best pound-for-pound fighters in the sport, neither is her ultimate goal.
“I just want to be remembered. That’s really all I can ask for,” admitted Honchak. “I want to be remembered as one of the pioneering women in the sport. I think about the people like Robbie Lawler, Matt Hughes, Jens Pulver, all these guys. Those are legacies. Those are people who will never be forgotten in the sport because they were the originals. That’s what I want to be remembered as.”
Without question, Honchak has already made her mark on the sport. An impressive win over Hashi on Nov. 1 will be another building block towards the legacy that she desires.
Honchak would like to thank Invicta, her teammates and coaches at Miletich Fighting Systems, and Big Five Strength and Conditioning.